Monday, February 28, 2011

west texas and beyond

The day began with breakfast in Rodeo, New Mexico, a few minutes across the state line from Arizona. Our desire to eat in restaurants that are not chains is a serious struggle in this part of the world. We get through several towns before we spot the Rodeo General Store with a small "cafe" sign propped on the window ledge. The store has all of three shelves and about five tables, a few of which are filled with locals sipping coffee and chewing the fat. The cook wears an apron "Born to golf, forced to cook". We are in the middle of the desert. We haven't seen a blade of grass since Los Angeles. Where would this guy golf? The menu is all eggs and meat. Everyone orders the McRodeo sandwiches (basically an egg mcmuffin) and I have a tasty, jalapeño omelette. We chat with the chef and the cashier about the cold snap that came through here a month or so ago. Several days of minus ten or colder in a place that rarely sees zero wreaked havoc on everyone's plumbing. Frozen pipes and no way to fix it once the plumbers ran out of supplies.

We continue along the I-80, which skirts the border for many miles. Mexico is the not-so-distant hills and it's torture to be so close. The road is completely deserted except for the roadrunner we see zip across it (meep meep). Flat, dead land stretches out for miles on either side with the occasional herd of cattle grazing (what they find to eat beats me). The only other vehicles we see are border patrol. I lose count after a dozen on a twenty mile stretch. On the crest of one hill, two trucks are parked side by side. One is fitted with a tower mounted with some sort of scanning device. The landscape is so bare, nary a bush and none of them higher than my knee. A man walking across this exposed expanse would be visible from miles away. Assuming someone could get past all this security, could they carry enough water to survive a trek through this parched desert? How desperate must one feel to think a possible future in America worth a deadly walk through the desert right into the gungho hands of the Border Patrol. It's just too depressing.

We go on, through Silver City, a place billed as one of the more authentic Western towns left in America. The man who first laid claim to the city (and the silver from which it got its name) lost it betting that he could outrun a horse. What is that saying about a fool and his money? This is the birthplace of Billy the Kid and the site of his first robbery. The house he grew up in was washed away, along with most of Main Street, in a flood a hundred years ago.

A quick call from a payphone to Darryl at Austin Veedub confirms that we just might make it home in the van. I'm so tired of being optimistic and then having my hopes dashed that I'm trying not to think about it at all.

We drive on. The Gila (pronounced Heela) Cliff Dwellings National Monument is forty-five miles up a dead-end road — the kind of road that would sour the most solid of stomachs. It is billed as a two-hour drive one way but we decide to tack the extra five hours on to the day because it is said to be worth it. By the road, Alice spots a mule deer. I see a baby partridge a few minutes later (The Partridge Family intro sadly the only reason I can identify the bird). A sign near the visitor centre tells us that this is also the birthplace of Geronimo, whose Apache name was Goyahkla, a man who lost all love for white man after his mother and wife and kids were butchered. His life story reads like a case study of just how poorly American/Native American relations were handled. But that is a tale for another day.

After a half mile walk along a gorge etched over millenia by the pretty stream running through it, we started up a narrow trail under beautiful sandstone cliffs. Near the top we were greeted by a volunteer park ranger who led us to the first in a series of caverns — a low, shallow one with a roof blackened by soot (the cookhouse). Built into natural caves on south-facing cliff walls, the Mogollon peoples erected walls of rock, mortar and timbers to keep out the wind and the cold. The spaces are divided into big and small rooms with windows and half-size doors, the roofs strengthened with timbers that have been dated to 1270. They didn't have the tools to cut down trees so they'd build a slow-burning fire around the base of a tree and burn for several days until the trunk was small and weakened enough to finish off with their stone implements. The process also protected the lumber from rot and pests. The walls don't go all the way up to the roof to leave enough room to allow the smoke to escape. Some of the rooms are tucked well back into the mountainside. It must have been pretty cozy in there with a nice fire and some animal skins to cuddle up under. Above the cliffs across the gorge (a steep climb down and up again without the aid of the park's handy dandy switchback trails) archeologists found evidence of vegetable plots. The Mogollon cultivated corn, beans and squash. One of the rooms still holds a cache of dessicated 700-year-old corn cobs which are half the size of today's. Ah, the wonders of genetic modification! There are also a few rust-coloured pictographs on the cavern walls. The most fascinating part for me was a two-story structure with tiny windows beside a huge, flat rock holding traces of uric acid and brain matter — the smokehouse and the tanning rock. The natural arch of the cave roofs frames a spectacular and different view with every step. What an amazing place.

By dusk, we're just outside El Paso. On the south side of the I-10, we pass miles of the feedlot equivalent for dairy cows, tens of thousands of cows standing in fenced pens of dusty mud. The smell is overpowering. The sight makes me want to swear off dairy. The I-10 turns toward the border and runs alongside it for a several miles. We see a sign that claims "Next 17 miles - Safety Corridor." What exactly is a safety corridor? The narrow Rio Grande is the only thing standing between the two nations. Well, that and a million border guards and all the high-tech gadgetry the US government can get their hands on. You could literally park on the shoulder of the interstate and throw a rock into Mexico. The buildings on the other side are of another caliber, low, colourful cinder block and no windows. Apparently El Paso and Juarez are now the most safe and the most dangerous cities, respectively, in the world. Juarez being such a hellhole makes it a little easier to swallow that we can't be on the other side. As the sun sets over Mexico, a sea of amber lights appear, stretching from horizon to horizon across the Rio Grande.

We stop to ask about a room but by some stroke of bad luck (I'm starting to take it personally) the girls' softball league, the boys' basketball league and some evangelical group have all decided to get together on the same bloody weekend. Dinner first. We head to Fabens, a little town outside El Paso. We're looking for the Cattleman's Steakhouse, meant to serve up the best steak in El Paso. We get off the interstate and, after a false start, find ourselves driving five miles along a deserted and very, very dark country road. I never thought we would find it but, sure enough, lights and a sign suddenly appear on the side of the road outside a tall wooden fence. We pull in and drive up the endless driveway through a compound that has all the trappings of a real ranch. The parking lot is packed with cars (and one saddled horse). Families are getting out of cars and heading toward the rambling one-story building. Where did all these people come from? We certainly didn't see them on the road.

The entrance is lined with glass cases, the first of which is a huge display of artillery (?), next are some framed photos of cattle and, further down the hall, the cattle in another incarnation, plates of cling-filmed raw steaks with little name tags. The place is all pine planks, chunky wooden tables and chairs and dining rooms full of Texans and Mexicans and everyone in between. We hear Texan drawls and Spanish but mostly English with a Mexican accent. The staff are all Mexican-American but, unlike most restaurants we've been to, we never hear them speak to each other in anything but English. After we place our order (I get the 10oz sirloin while Wil opts for the 1-1/2lb t-bone) Frances points at the long window behind me and tells me to have a look. I do and I see a display of antique carriages set amongst some bushes about halfway up the window, all of it illuminated by lights set into the grounds. Very nice, I think. And then something moves. A silver-coloured dog is chewing on something behind the carriage wheel, and then another dog just like it appears. And then I realize I am looking at wild coyotes through the window. Soon there are four or more of them and they are fighting over scraps on the ground, completely oblivious to the half-dozen people in the restaurant who are pointing and trying to capture them on film. They bolt away, only to return a few seconds later to sniff around.

James, our waiter, who seemed to slip Sir and Ma'am into every sentence, making me feel positively ancient. He brought us plates heavy with meat and mutant baked potatoes as big as the steaks. As promised, the meat was fantastic. The place definitely lives up to its reputation. If you're ever in El Paso...

On we go, through vast, boring west Texas. Again! Have I mentioned that Texas is huge? We decided to just drive and see how far we got... Through ranch country, places with curious names, like Ozona and Junction. How lame, I thought, not even a qualifier like "Mesa" to pep up the name, just plain ol' "Junction". Our attempt to avoid chain restaurants proves impossible so we opt not to eat at all. As we turn the atlas page from Texas (western) to Texas (Eastern) we realize that making it to Austin today isn't out of the question. We decide to just hammer out the miles. One little town we drive through has a general store with four saddled horses tied up to the handrail outside. What's ranch country without cowboys?

Pulling into Austin feels like coming home. Second only to Puebla. It's funny to think we've spent weeks getting to know two cities we only meant to breeze through. I'd say we got pretty lucky as to which two cities it was. We get ourselves a room and then headed over to South Congress, where we've had great luck with food. One of my favourite things about this town is the food trailer courts. If there is a better use for a vacant lot I can't think of one. A bunch of picnic tables clustered in the middle and, around the perimeter, a line of trailers, some barely big enough to hold a person never mind a kitchen, some elaborate (and beautiful) airstreams. The food is always interesting (sometimes only slightly more so than the artful descriptions on the boards leaning on the trailer). There's usually at least one taco stand, often some Thai, a sausage place, fries and burgers and at least one sweet (ice cream, chocolates or — all the rage in Austin — cupcakes). We walk and walk but don't find what I want. Wil and the kids finally get a artisanal hotdog to curb their hunger but I'm not willing to compromise. We walk some more. It feels great to use the legs after being trapped in the Town & Country all day. The heat, however humid, is a welcome change but my patience is starting to wear thin. We concede and buy some salad fixings, a little Chocolove and a bottle of wine to bring back to the room as the kids go to the candy store to fill up baggies of penny candy. As we're driving back to the hotel, we come across another trailer court with "A Little Thai" a few blocks away. I wolf back a Pad Thai, Wil sips up a Tom Yum as the kids happily chomp on spring rolls.

In the morning the kids all got a haircut at Bird's barbershop. I decide not to get involved in the child/hairdresser interaction and I am surprised by the results. The girls are thrilled. We pick up an air mattress at REI (MEC for Americans) to replace the one in the disappearing bag and take the kids bowling at Westgate lanes. Afterward we drive to Driftwood for the last thing on our Texas to-do-list. Barbecue.
The Salt Lick is in the middle of nowhere. A compound of low white gravel, sun bleached fencing around a parking lot that is chockablock. Lots of people heading for the restaurant are dragging coolers full of ice cold beer behind them. The place is BYOB. The story is that the man who started the place was sick of travelling around for work so he and his wife came up with a list of jobs he could do to stay put. There were 50-odd things on the list. Barbecue was number 14. He built a pit with his son and every Thursday went to start the fire and cook up some meat. He slept on a little cot beside the pit and only went home when everything was sold. He started selling out faster and faster. Soon enough, he was building a gazebo around the pit and the rest, as they say, is history. Now the place is massive. Our dining room, one of several, is wide enough for three picnic tables that seat ten twenty tables deep with lots of room to circulate. Outside, a guitarist picks out a tune for the al fresco diners. Everyone is enjoying the sunshine and 85 degree weather. We get ourselves some fresh-squeezed lemonade from a stand of Mexican girls at the door and order all-you-can-eat barbecue with all the fixins'. The waitress brings us a big plate of pork ribs, sausage cut on the diagonal and brisket, all dripping with yummy barbecue sauce. There isn't a dry piece of meat on the plate. With it comes a big bowl of potato salad, a big bowl of cole slaw, a plate of dill pickles and raw, sweet onion, more barbecue sauce and a habañero sauce. The plates of mammoth beef ribs being deposited on other tables look like something out of the Flintstones. Fingerlickin' doesn't do it justice. Without a doubt the best barbecue I have ever had.

We head back into town to Zilker Park, Austin's answer to Mount Royal, except that it's in Texas so it's huge and flat. The northern edge of the park runs alongside Lady Bird Lake, which is really a reservoir. Everyone with a kayak, canoe or scull is out on the water having a blast. Sadly, the park's public pool, fed by hot springs, is closed for the winter. We lounge around in the park watching people play soccer and beach volleyball. I don't understand why people feel compelled to wear bathing suits when they're playing a sport that has nothing to do with swimming in the middle of the city? Henri plays with his new balsa wood glider as the girls do Alice's favourite thing — what she calls "meeting people in public," which basically entails chatting up people with dogs. The smaller the dog, the thicker the girls lay it on. I am loving eavesdropping on my kids's conversations with strangers these days. It's always interesting to hear what they consider important to convey about who we are, what we're doing and how in the hell we got here.

We go back to our 'hood, to pick up a cupcake at the "hey cupcake" trailer for the kids. Noone is that hungry, after the massive meat fest that was lunch. I propose to Wil that we bring some food back to the room for dinner to save some money. Wil replies "We have no money to save."

We're both dreading tomorrow, the day of reckoning, when we have to pay for the rental car AND the car repairs. Tomorrow will probably set us back as much as the whole trip was intended to cost. Sigh.

Favourite t-shirts and billboards this week:
"Pick Jesus", "Runs with scissors", "oil is dumb", "Jean shorts are never okay" and
"Allergic to Church? God can help."

Saturday, February 26, 2011

sin city and bzzzzbee

We're in Vegas by mid-afternoon. I know it's one of those places on everyone's list, a place to see before you die. But I still don't get it. Despite my valiant attempts at being non-judgmental it feels like the white-trash capital of the world. The surrounding landscape is quite pretty — desert surrounded by jagged hills — but any natural beauty is washed out by the lights and the garish drama of The Strip. The hotels are gawdy as all heck. The one we chose, Bugsy Siegel's flagship, The Flamingo, is twice as expensive as any other place we've stayed but cheaper than many hotels on the strip. For some reason, I had a fifties kinda hep/hip image of Las Vegas before we arrived, something like Acapulco where the likes of Tony Bennett fit in. I guess I am fifty years too late. The sidewalks are full of lots of very loaded young adults carry around massive drinks in plastic Eiffel towers, dozens of people in hoodies flick glossy business cards with call girls's photos and phone numbers at Wil, until they see me behind or beside him. We had a drink on the sidewalk outside Caesar's Palace, two shots of tequila, a beer and one piñata for $45. We went up to the north end of the strip to Circus Circus to make the kids happy and walked through the labyrinth of the hotel — past a thousand machines, a few kino games, roulette, etc. before finding the "indoor amusement park". The casinos are obviously designed to make it as difficult as possible to find an exit. For a little over a hundred dollars we all got a bracelet and got to wander around the indoor amusement park with some very lame rides plus one decent roller coaster. I talked everyone into going on the roller coaster (a birthday present, I begged). Alice cried hysterically the whole time we were in line and then the whole time the roller coaster climbed. Scream, I told her. Scream and you won't be scared. The coaster did a couple of upside down loops and half the ride was in the dark. I screamed like a maniac and so did Alice. When we got off Wil was shaking, Frances was crying, Henri was being cool and Alice asked me if we could go on again! One down, two to go.

Afterward, we walked up and down the Strip looking for a decent dinner but didn't have much luck. The maze-like behemoth hotels lead you past every single betting device in the building before the restaurants. I'm sure there is good food to be found in this town but good, affordable food? I wanted L'Express but what I got was Battista's Italian Hole in the Wall. Menu written on the wall, salad served in plastic bowls, free carafe of wine with every dinner, ceilings covered with wicker baskets. You get the picture. We thought about a Cirque du Soleil show but couldn't swallow the $1000 price tag for two hours of entertainment. It almost made the Donny & Marie show at our hotel look good! I'm a little bit country... We did get to see the seriously impressive fountain show outside Bellagio. The carpeted casinos stink of smoke and are full of older men and women, many with walkers parked beside the slot machines, waiting for their ship to come in. They seem to be there morning, noon and night. When Wil went down to the lobby at 6 the next morning, he was chatted up by a couple of friendly "ladies" looking for a date. He came back to get us and, after watching the sun rise over the desert — an impressive sight from the twenty-second floor — we headed to the Bellagio buffet for breakfast. On the way, we passed two different poker rooms with at least three tables full of gamblers. Have they been up all night or did they start the session extra early this morning? Which is sadder? At least these gamblers are up against other humans instead of machines. Aack. I am beyond grossed out by this place. Breakfast was a bewildering selection of delicious treats. We all gorged ourselves and then got back to the car as fast as we could. We had a good time. Hell, we always have a good time but Las Vegas is, thankfully, no longer on my list.

We headed to the Hoover Dam, a reminder of how this quantity of humans cannot be sustained in this arid environment. The road zigzags down into the gorge toward the dam, past a security check (since 9/11, no doubt). We pulled over and walked across the structure, the drop into Lake Mead dizzying but nowhere near the height of the plummeting downriver side. Our house would fit in the overflow pipe alone. The dam, which apparently holds enough cement to pave a two-lane road from California to New York, is a monster and must have seemed all the more so without the massive new bridge that straddles the gorge.

The drive from the dam to Flagstaff, Arizona was beautiful. Sharp mountains, boulders crumbling everywhere. The rolling ground is pale brown dirt and brush, the patchy scrub looks like hair implants. As we get closer to Flagstaff, at 7000 feet, the temperature drops and snow starts appearing on the ground. Then lots of ice. I am sooo not ready for this! When I think of Arizona I certainly do not think of snow.

We pull into Flagstaff and drive around the cute little red brick downtown we'd seen passing through last time. It definitely feels like the West. We get a room at the Monte Vista, a hotel that's been in business forever. The check-in counter is all antique wood panelling and keys in pigeonholes. The elevator is so ancient you could probably run up the three floors before the elevator even got to the first. The low ceilings in the halls drip with chandeliers. We walk past the Siouxsie Sioux room and the Michael J. Fox room to ours, the Presidential Suite, which should have been called the Emperor's Suite with its crimson walls, gold ceiling and black trim.

Had a great night out. Drinks at Cuvée 928 and dinner at Pasto, a cute, modern Italian place. We passed on an amazing-looking Barbecue Pit and a few other restaurants that more than appealed. We could spend a few days here just for the food. In the morning we had breakfast at the Grand Canyon café, where the menu is split down the middle into Chinese and American dishes. We sat at the bar and our sweet but flaky waitress flapped around getting our orders wrong. We got on the 17 headed south, stopping at Arcosanti, a ecological community designed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, a former student of Frank Lloyd Wright's. Made of packed earth and a serious amount of cement, the string of structures were created as a model for a self-contained community of five thousand people. The exterior is a seventies take on modernism, lots of domes and circles and cubes, all of it held together with a truckload of Flextra. The interior is filled with light, some early Ikeaish furniture, a lot of stained glass and a thousand chimes. All that was missing was some macrame. I was sorry to miss the one-hour tour but we took a walk into the hill opposite to get a bird's eye view. We asked some questions when we got back. Only fifty people live in the community now, apart from the students who rotate in and out every five weeks. We kept on heading south, running from the big storm that was set to hit the north of Arizona. We may have run too fast. We managed to lose another bag. Big L. We're starting to think that the unfortunate luck we've had on this trip is balancing out the rest of our happy life.

Through Phoenix, a town even the guidebooks claim is better avoided. We have lunch on the road. After we eat we see a sign on the door that tells us the water contains high levels of nitrates and should not be given to infants under the age of 6 months. Yum. As Wil stands in line for lunch, he notices that two of the men are carrying handguns. Just regular looking guys. What's up with that? We stop at Walmart in Benson, to find some more DVDs now that the kids have made it through the Harry Potter series. As always, the place is depressing. A woman sat, wringing her hands, across a small desk from what looked like an accountant. I'd assumed she was filing her tax returns but the sign on the cardboard booth said "Refund anticipation loans."

Through Tucson, past an endless string of rv camps, places with no shade, no privacy and no charm, past a benedictine monastery (what the ???), tantalizingly close to the mexican border and on to Bisbee, a small town with a big reputation. We went all the way through town to look around. On the south side is a series of vast fenced-in terraced pits with a nasty-looking pond at the bottom; the reason the town is here, the copper mine. Once upon a time, Bisbee was the biggest town between New Orleans and San Francisco. The downtown is regal, red brick buildings, lots of old mining equipment, streets that look like they were pulled out of a Western. Set into a steep hillside, many of the streets have staircases, many doorways and front lawns are creatively decorated with bottlecaps and other found objects. There is definitely a big artistic community here. We go for a walk around town. It feels comfortingly a bit like Mexico. We book into the Copper Queen Hotel, a grande old dame of a place, which is haunted by three (count'em, three) ghosts. We were lucky to get a room, as every thursday night the fourth floor is blocked off for the ghost hunt. For $287, a couple gets a room, coffee & desert and an evening of ghost hunting — complete with EMF equipment and ghost stories.

We head out for dinner to Café Roka. A warm, inviting little resto tucked in among the quaint shop fronts of Main street. Our maitre(sse) d' is either half-baked or working hard on her Mae West impersonation. The waiter is a malcontent but the meal is absolutely sensational. Finally some vegetables!!! A four-course meal with soup, salad, sorbet and a fantastic entrée. Wil and I shared some great olives and a super-savoury hummus, then Wil dug into a steak and I had a lasagne layered with eggplant and artichoke and three sauces, béchamel, spinach and tomato. Key lime pie and crème brulée to die for. We ask the busgirl what the population of Bisbee was. By way of an answer, she tols us her senior class has seventy kids. She also tells us that the mine recently opened again, for the first time in her life. I suppose skyrocketing copper prices have made the cost of its extraction seem a little less prohibitive.

In the morning, we're heading for Texas. It seems the repairs are going well and we just might make it home in the van after all.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


On our way to LA, we find Peggy Sue's Diner in Barstow (and so do a hundred other people — people on their way to and from Las Vegas). The fifties-style diner's menu features all the classic diner plates you'd expect, plus a couple of new ones. We couldn't resist one in particular — wedges of dill pickle dipped in batter and deep fried, served with ranch dressing. I blistered my palate but it was so worth it.

When we finally hit LA and shifted from the "Southern California" page of my atlas to the "Greater Los Angeles" page, the scale took me totally by surprise. I can't quite believe how massive the city is — we drove the distance from Montreal to St. Sauveur and were still nowhere near the other side of town. I'd expected LA to be full of flat, wide, treeless streets and detached bungalows. Instead, the parts of the city we were hanging out in were as green as could be, settled into folds of canyons. Seeing the addresses painted on the curb brought back flashbacks of a dozen childhood shows. We drove into Glendale where Steve and Kim live with their two girls. Glendale is a pretty neighbourhood of tidy little forties bungalows interspersed with designer modern homes. The roads are so winding and steep that every window frames a pretty view of rooftops or greenery. Steve and Kim's house is something out of Leave it to Beaver, white picket fences in a perfect green lawn under a round-leafed shade tree with a white tree swing, all of it framed by the window over the kitchen sink. What is it about watching your kids on a tree swing with your hands in a sink full of dirty dishes that makes you feel like a real MOM. Where's my apron?! The interior of the house is wallpaper from the sixties, gingham curtains, blue and white porcelain spice rack. The back yard has a pretty little patio and steps up to the secret garden and the trampoline. It's the first time since Chiapas that we've seen trees in leaf. The garden is lush, roses blooming all around us. It is so nice to not drive for a while, to hang out with some good, old friends and just shoot the shit. Our girls and their girls pull out the Barbies and Polly Pockets and pick up where they left off this summer. Henri dives into his new Beatles' book and tries to stay out of their way. The weather is crap, cold and rainy but the attraction to LA is IN the house as far as we're concerned so we're happy as clams.

When the weather breaks the next day we go for a walk. Minutes away from the house is a trail that hugs the green ridge of the San Rafael Hills. The trail switches back through waist-high bushes, each step releasing a cloud of wonderful scent as we brush up against the sage and other fragrant herbs pushing their way onto the trail. Plants that horticulturally-gifted friends spend their summers struggling to grow in their gardens pop up like weeds in the middle of the trampled paths. The view is spectacular. Kim points out the surrounding neighbourhoods and the nearby mountains of Angeles National Park which were ablaze in the last round of LA forest fires. The wind is fierce. It's easy to see how a forest fire could ravage this area in no time flat. The green hills all around us are woven with trails that lead from canyon to canyon.

The next day, Kim, our most excellent cruise director, took us on the tourist run of LA, past the Hollywood sign, through Hollywood and Beverley Hills — a long line of stars stretch out for miles on the sidewalks. I realize as we drive around that most of the names of people and places mean very little to me. We're on our way to the Getty Centre to meet Wil's brother, David, who's been living in and around LA for years. We park the car and take the little monorail up to the hilltop site. The free museum is spectacular — cubes of pale stone piled high like lego blocks around huge panes of glass. The desertlike gardens meander around and between the buildings leading past sculptures of steel and bronze and stone. A glimmering chute of water bubbles down the hillside and collects in an elaborate maze of crimson flowers. The kids are frustrated because they're not allowed in any of the green spaces. We lead them through a photo exhibit of early and contemporary Chinese photos but they soon run out of patience and end up in the Family Room where they can wrestle and jump. They all emerge with hand-drawn masks. Sitting in the sunny courtyard as we wait, the people-watching is excellent. The variety of the Getty Centre clientèle comes as a relief after the colourless southwest — women in full, black hijabs, Japanese tourists, yarmulkes, turbans...

On David's suggestion we head down to Patrick's Roadhouse, a restaurant on the beach at the end of Sunset Boulevard. After our yummy lunch we go through a flooded tunnel under the Pacific Coast Highway to the beach, the Pacific glistens in the afternoon sun, Catalina Island's a hazy bump on the horizon. Kites are flying, a blimp roams around above us. Hundreds of seagulls scour the beach for snacks. When they take to the sky, it's like a white cloud. The kids play in the sand as we sit around and chat. David tries to impart some of his vast knowledge of the Southwest. After an hour or so of kicking around on the beach, we say goodbye to David and our friends and hit the PCH up to Topanga.

The freeways here remind us of how differently Mexicans and Americans use vehicles. Mexicans use a trip to pack in the most people and goods, while Americans invariably have four empty seats in the car. The fact that a car only needs to hold two people to qualify for the almost-always-empty carpool lane says it all. The absence of decent public transport in a sprawl like Los Angeles is shocking. If this were Mexico, every thoroughfare would have a constant flow of colectivos scouring the sidewalks for passengers.

We turn off the PCH toward Topanga, a winding road through a lush canyon where jagged golden sandstone and greenery hang high above you. The cliffs are covered in gnarled, mediterranean plants that have found a foothold in the shallow, rocky soil. The town itself feels a lot like a very low-key ski resort town, hippies and groovy little shops scattered in the narrow patches of flat stretched out along the road. Pretty soon we were pulling off the main road and creeping up one of the steep trails leading off the boulevard. The house is a wonder. In total contrast to the tidy traditionalism of Steve & Kim's, it is all glass and concrete and views. What the two houses do have in common is the warmth — of the home and the hosts. Half an hour later we were all in the hot tub, gazing out at the sandstone and the curtains of green hill that hide the Pacific from view. Definitely a little piece of heaven. The kids fished frogs out of the pool as we got dinner together. The girls followed their new hero, Kali, around asking a million questions about makeup and heels. Beautiful Kali was as gracious and lovely as ever.

The next morning we hung out, did some homework and then drove back into LA. We parked near the Santa Monica pier and walked along Venice Beach. I find visiting a place so often featured in TV and movies tends to make everyone there look like they've been cast in their roles. All the characters you'd expect — lots of tattooed skin, homeless guys strumming guitars, vets in wheelchairs, teenagers in short shorts and cowboy boots, families cruising around on rented bikes, students on long skateboards, bikini beach volleyball, surfing lessons in wetsuits, facelifts sunbathing in chaise longues by cafés, career drunks in baseball caps soaking up the sun in the streetside bars.

We head off the strip through quiet, little green alleys to find Mona Moore, Lisa's store, a white, understated space that displays the wares to full advantage. The girls gape at the impossibly high heels while I admire the grey flats. All the footwear is a work of art. After our visit we head back to the strip for lunch on a sunny terrasse.

Later we head back to Scoop's house to hang out. It's hard to imagine that their quiet, rural-feeling home is a mere fifteen minutes from Venice Beach. Kali gives the girls a makeover and lets them try on endless pairs of heels as Scoop, Wil, Henri & I head out for a walk on the trails around the house. Being able to rise above the crowds to escape the congestion for a quick walk in the trees sure alleviates any feeling one might have of being trapped in a metropolis. Henri hunts for sandstone caves as Shuggie, the chocolate lab, zigzags across the trail tracking down rabbits. As we take in the spectacular views, Scoop talks about the forest fires that regularly tear through these canyons and the earthquakes that threaten to shake coastal cities into the Pacific. The perils of living in paradise. When Lisa gets back from work, we enjoy a delicious lamb dinner, some yummy red wine and pore over some great family photos.

We say goodbye to our excellent hosts in the morning and head inland into the San Fernando valley (like, gag me with a spoon!) quickly getting stuck in one of five lanes of traffic inching its way toward downtown. We manage to find an alternate route, the poetically named Pearblossom Highway, and were into the country in no time. Joshua trees sit tiny beneath the gigantic towers holding the power lines off the desert floor. We also see the Los Angeles Aqueduct — a wide band of shimmering water meandering through the desert toward the city. The snow-covered north face of the San Gabriel Mountains now sits between us and Los Angeles.
A quick stop at In N Out Burger in Barstow. It's hard to go wrong with only four things on the menu (three kinds of burger and fries). In the desert, the ten commandments appear in white billboards on the side of the highway.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Nature's wonders in the Southwest

We got a room at the Historical Taos Inn, in part because we could feed the kids, pop them in front of a movie and have dinner à deux at the hotel's restaurant. We all had drinks in the lobby and chatted with the manager of the place, comparing notes on travelling in VW vans. The beauty of being in this mega-tourist zone in the winter is the unhurried treatment we get everywhere. When we told him about our romantic dinner plans he got the waitress to bring some chicken tenders to the kids and then surprised us by not charging us.

It was lovely to have a little time alone (possibly our first ever Valentine's dinner out) but the meal was manqué. Good concepts but all of it too heavy, or too light or too bland. Our fellow diners were all of the new-age granola variety and the background music was provided by open-mic night in the adjoining bar — a man playing the melodica (poorly) to a recording as his girlfriend did an interpretive dance. I spent the rest of Valentine's discovering the difference between a laxative and a stool softener. Hell, who needs ten days for a cleanse when you can do it in five hours?!

Wil took the kids out for a walk in the morning. Not a soul on the sidewalk, everyone in their car. I'm starting to realize (HELLO!!) that outside major city centres, this country is all about cars. If you're not shopping there doesn't seem to be much point in walking anywhere. Time for a little nature break.

Just outside Taos we came upon the wildest community out in the middle of nowhere. The Earthship Landing Zone is a collection of dwellings dug into the desert floor that look like they were designed by someone on some major hallucinogenics. Wild, organic shapes, colours not usually deemed appropriate for houses, walls of windows facing the sun, all built of stacks of old car tires and completely off the grid — using minimal resources and using them well. I had a poke around the web and the interiors are pretty cool too. 

We headed up into Colorado, through some lovely pine forests, past ranches (one called Bad Dream Ranch with an effigy of some guy in a noose hanging from the high gate — welcoming touch!), horse farms and a lot of snow. The Rocky Mountains kept us company almost the whole way. We were heading to Mesa Verde National Park to see some Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwellings. I thought that, prior to heading into some of the reservations, it would be worth seeing something of the peoples who inhabited this land before the whities came along. As we got close, I read that the park is only open from March to November. Crap.

We crossed over into Utah and started heading north, stopping in at the Hole N" the Rock fifteen minutes before it closed. The tour, which according to our well-rehearsed guide, is meant to last twelve minutes was (unintentionally) hysterical. We stepped through the doors of the gift shop and into the side of a sandstone mountain. Our guide whisked us along, through the creation of Albert Christensen & his wife, Gladys. The couple first opened the attraction as a diner when the local uranium-mining business was going like gangbusters. Albert liked it so much he went on to blast a five-room home out of the mountainside. A sandstone cave with three large columns and a couple of walls with windows on the exterior, the place is far and above the finest example of kitsch I have ever seen. According to our guide, Albert was a chef, sculptor, painter, carpenter, barber and taxidermist (I'm sure I'm forgetting a few). Whether he performed any of these activities well is another matter. His awful (and nearly identical) paintings of Jesus hung on many of the "walls", along with a half-completed bust of Benjamin Franklin. The furniture was all fifties and sixties, the kitchen and bathroom fittings all pale greens and blues with big concave silver knobs, the upholstery nubbly browns and tans. The missus had a penchant for tchatchkas and apparently liked to chip away little alcoves in the stone walls to display her hundreds of figurines. Also in the house are two stuffed horses and a stuffed mule, his first attempt at taxidermy and not a very successful one. The beloved mule, who helped Albert haul all the busted rock out of the hole, looked like he'd been attacked with a bat after a wax job gone wrong. Tacky doesn't even begin to cover it. I was sorry to not have more time to really pore over the place (and even more sorry not to be allowed to take photos) but we were definitely getting the "get the hell out, it's closing time" vibe. What a place. What a surreal job.

We got ourselves a hotel room in Moab and let the kids party in the pool and hot tub and, in the morning, drove the few miles up to Arches National Monument. The park is, without a doubt, one of nature's masterpieces. The nine-mile loop road leads you past what look like a giant's plasticine creations. According to another friendly park ranger, the formations were the result of an inland sea depositing a thick layer of sand over an unstable salt bed that eventually gave way, creating cracks and collapses. Whatever caused them, they are beautiful beyond words. Petrified sand the colour of clay in awe-inspiring waves and cracks, towers and arches. We went for a hike up to Delicate Arch, the image that appears on the Utah license plate alongside the logo "Life Elevated". We raced up the steep red track to get the lead on a bunch of fourth graders being herded along by teachers and park rangers. All around us were incredible rock walls and canyons, peppered with eroded nooks and crannies. The worn traces of millions of years of spring streams and rainfalls in this arid environment evident in perfectly round dents in the rock. Aside from a trio of very discreet Japanese tourists we had the Arch to ourselves. The majesty of the place had us all gob-smacked. The kids and I ran around as Wil acted brave and wrung his hands at the proximity of his loved ones to perilous drops. The kids spent the walk down tucking themselves into little cups in the mountainside. Wow.

We drove on, toward Natural Bridges National Monument and had a quick look at more arches. The first one, Sipapu, was named for the place where the Hopi emerged from the underworld. We also saw Horse Collar Ruin. We stood on the edge of a cliff and looked down on the remains of a thousand-year-old dwelling tucked into an alcove near the canyon floor. The weather was starting to turn and we didn't have the courage to tackle a long hike so we settled for some short walks to the lookouts to see the other two bridges. 

Down highway 261 toward Arizona, with a quick detour to a place called Muley Point, where the road drops off an area of rolling fields dense with cedar and juniper called Cedar Mesa, into the Valley of the Gods. The red dirt road is about five miles off the highway, past grazing cattle and grates, to the end of a finger of rock that points the way to Monument Valley. The wind practically knocked me over as I tried to capture, in vain I fear, the spectacular view on film. Standing on a precipice, straddling foot-wide cracks in the rock, the stone towers of Monument Valley like sentinels, casting massive shadows on the horizon, the San Juan River snaking through the canyon striped like a full-colour topography map below. Again, we found ourselves shaking our heads wondering if we were still on planet Earth.

Into Navajo land on a hairy, one-lane switchback gravel road that drops down into the valley. We were pretty happy not to have to back up to make way for a car or truck on its way up. We were too late to make it into Monument Vally Park (damn winter hours) so we headed down the road to Kayenta, the next town. We checked in to a hotel, a lowslung affair where native flute music is constantly playing in all the public spaces of the building. The effect is cool for about as long as it takes to check in, then it starts feeling like you're in the waiting room to see a masseuse. The place was staffed entirely by Navajo, underscoring the fact that we might well be in the US but we were, first and foremost, in the Navajo Nation. The hotel restaurant was meant to be the best in town and we were served by beautiful raven-haired waitresses in black — colourful belts cinching the waist of their long skirts (the look only slightly marred by the jeans visible under the hem). The other guests are an extended family of Chinese tourists, mining men — a reminder that the uranium market is rebounding —  and an older Mennonite couple, complete with Abe Lincoln beard and doily-like head covering. Wil and Henri had a Navajo Taco, a plate full of Indian fry bread, a ten-inch across, half-inch thick disk of fried dough covered in pinto beans, chopped brisket, cheese, tomato and lettuce with a side of salsa & sour cream. A nice, light meal. The hotel was pretty enough but we got a bit creeped out by the place. It felt haunted and, I suppose, in a way, it was. We drove up the road to the Park first thing in the morning. Barebones houses, few and far between, scattered in the desert, roofs covered in old tires to keep the tin and asphalt shingles safe from the wind, rusty pick ups parked outside, barbed wire fencing driven into the red soil, upwind side piled high with tumbleweeds. Aside from the monuments and the infrastructure to handle the tourist onslaught, the land is practically empty. It makes one wonder why white men were so desperate to tear the Hopi, Apache and Navajo from this land. There is no doubt that this is a deeply spiritual area. If you want to commune with nature, you've definitely come to the right place but I found it hard to not let the undercurrent of massacre and displacement taint the sheer majesty. 

After Arches, Natural Bridges and especially the view from Muley Point, Monument Valley was actually a bit anti-climactic. We got there just as the sun was rising, the beautiful rocks towered above the desert floor, the east faces lit up in orange and pink. Again, we were almost alone in the place. I think the monuments are perhaps better seen as a group, from a distance, when they look like giants looming in the red desert. The Visitor Centre had a fascinating display on the Navajo Code Talkers, Navajo men recruited to serve in World Wars I and II to use their native tongue to transmit secret messages that noone could decode. Later we saw billboards celebrating the names of the first 27 Code Talkers.

We went on to the Grand Canyon, a three-hour drive south west. Why did I always think it was in Colorado? We entered the park from the east and got our first glimpse of the canyon from the Desert View watchtower. To be honest, it wasn't all that different from what we'd seen earlier in the week but the scale! It was just too much to take in. We drove further along the rim and parked the car off the road in a spot we'd read about. According to our guidebook, we should ignore the "Only by Permit" sign and jump the chained gate for a more private viewing of the canyon. We had a quick lunch out of the side of the van and meandered up a dirt road into a gorgeous pine forest.  The mile-long road was so muddy in places we had to weave our way through the woods where we spotted some impressive tracks and some wolf scat. At the end of the road was a lovely little clearing dotted with rustic picnic tables and a latrine. We followed the path toward the edge and found a little track that led out onto a narrow spit that jutted out into the canyon. As the sides dropped away and the spit narrowed further, Wil begged off. The kids and I held hands and walked single file as far out as we dared. I have no fear of heights but a mile down is a hell of a long way. We sat down near the end, on a natural shelf of rocks and had a good look around. Absolute quiet, not a human
or manmade structure visible as far as the eye can see, which is saying something in this setting. The canyon walls opposite are layers of rock laid out in colourful stripes. From this height, the river is just a tiny string on the canyon floor. It's hard to imagine that that little (from here) river is the cause of this wonder but I suppose if you do anything for 1800 million years... After the kids were back on solid ground, Wil decided to have his own look at the view. How lucky we felt to have this magical spot to ourselves.

Back at the car we drove into Grand Canyon Village to see whether we wanted to spend the night or get some mileage done to cut down on tomorrow's drive. As we tidied up the back of the van we noticed that our red backpack, the backpack that held Wil's laptop and every stupid cable to charge computers and cameras and ipods, was no longer with us. We racked our brains and my heart sank as I vaguely recalled putting the backpack on the ground in a parking lot somewhere. A couple of desperate phone calls later the bag was located... in Monument Valley!! Aargh. As Nicky, Wil's sister, put it, karma is not on our side on this trip. Although some good samaritan was kind enough to turn the bag in, which is luck enough. My gaffe tacked an extra six hours on to our drive. To add insult to injury, we had only one option as to how to get there, forcing us to do the same, extremely boring stretches of road three times in the same day. It was a bitter pill made much easier to swallow by Wil, who didn't even bat an eye or do the easy thing and make me feel like even more of an idiot. As we drove back I read to Wil about the bloody and fascinating histories of the Apache, Hopi and Navajo to pass the time.The one consolation was watching the full moon emerge from the desert floor behind the monuments when we finally made it back. By nine we were in Flagstaff, ready to crash.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Back in the U.S. of A.

After our decision in Tolantongo, we backtracked to the highway and then headed north. Just before dark we pulled in to San José Iturbide, a little town a few kilometres off the carretera. The kids chased each other around the zócalo as Wil and I got a hotel room and found a place for dinner. We ended up at a table in the corner of a café gleefully watching Mexico kick Bosnia's butt. We got the kids up early to hit the road before the rest of Mexico woke up. Along the side of the highway was a stand every few hundred feet selling strawberries and cream. So very tempting but we couldn't afford any unnecessary stops. Later the stands were fruit ice cream. After half an hour on the road a new worrying noise developed — the unpleasant shriek and clank of metal on metal, this time from the front of the car. What now?!!! We pulled over to have a look and found that the spring on the front passenger wheel had broken. We joked that at least the new noise masked the wooga-wooga of the back wheel and the gnashing of the gears. We drove until dark, past what looked like a hay day — hundreds of trucks hauling small to huge loads of green hay to one little town where they were all congregating; the kind of event that we'd normally feel compelled to check out, because wherever crowds gather there is bound to be great food. This time we had to pass. We came out of the beautiful, high mountain plateau into Monterrey, dropping from almost ten thousand feet to fifteen hundred. Both the climbs and the descents were nerve-wracking as the moody gears worked for a time and then, mysteriously, didn't. Wil adjusted his driving style to accommodate either no second and fourth gear or no third and fifth, depending on the slope. In the late afternoon we arrived in Monterrey to a lot of hand-wringing as we struggled to find a hotel on the highway in order to spend as little time in traffic (changing gears) as possible. Being off the road for the night was a huge relief, especially knowing that a couple of hours of driving in the morning would put us within towing distance of Austin.

Our last night in Mexico was depressing. The airport hotel was miles away from any food of interest, the signs were all in English, the restaurant was full of Americans and Japanese undoubtedly flying in and out to check on maquilladoras. Wil and I discussed what to do next. With the house rented out going home early just wasn't an option and no matter what, we'll need to stick around while the van is being fixed. We decided to rent a car once we were north of the border and use the time to check out the southwest. All we had to do was mention Vegas for the kids to jump on board.

The border crossing in the morning was a breeze. We took the extra time to head further west to cross at the Colombia Bridge. We drove for miles along the border, between the two biggest (and purportedly most dangerous) crossings in Texas. Perspective is such a funny thing. This same area was such a minefield for us on the way down. We couldn't get out of it fast enough. Now our only worry was whether the van would make it and, if it didn't, how to get a tow truck in this no-man's land. The traffic was nil, the border staff was positively gracious (for the first time ever) and we were across after the most cursory look inside the van.

We were in Austin before four. We couldn't quite believe we'd made it as we pulled into the garage. I can't face the idea of writing about the effin' mechanical issues. Suffice it to say that the hallelujah moment of getting there was quickly swept away by the realization that the van was, in all likelihood, going to be in the US longer than us. In an exhausted daze, Wil went over to Enterprise Rent-a-car to bring back a Chrysler Town & Country while I shopped for a used five-speed transmission online. When Wil turned up we loaded up some stuff and headed in to South Austin. Our favourite motel was all booked up but we got a place in the creepy, white-trash Embassy Suites and headed to South Congress for some dinner. I had my heart set on a nice bottle of white and some seafood at Perla's. We all settled in at the concrete bar. The kids watched some spectacular footage of fish in the sea as we devoured their friends with a nice bottle of Muscadet.

We decided to head west from Austin and head for Carlsbad Cavern just over the New Mexico border. It took us all day to get out of endless Texas. I realize that winter can be dry and colourless but West Texas is just too desolate — mile upon mile upon boring mile of nothingness. Miles are so bloody long!! I know a naturalist would object but the occasional halfhearted mesa is the only thing breaking the monotony of this blah, washed-out, flat scrub. When dusk came, the desert looked like the sea — the horizon as straight as if it'd been drawn with a ruler, everything below it turned black and above it a pale orange band washing into the pale blue of the vast, endless sky. The shimmering lights from distant oil wells looked like shrimp boats bobbing on the night sea. The Big Dipper's handle plunged straight into the desert. Occasionally a mobile home with a pickup truck outside would appear. Who the hell lives out here?

We drove on roads with no curves until well after dark, opting to make it to Carlsbad before calling it quits. We couldn't resist the description of one restaurant touted as the "Best Chinese in West Texas" (I don't know how stiff the competition is). It didn't take long to track down Bamboo Garden. All we had to do was find the most parked cars on this Saturday night in small town West Texas. Walking into the restaurant was like entering another world. Red lacquer walls, gold-framed mirrors everywhere, jade tiger sculptures in glassed-in alcoves on the walls, dark thick-pile carpet. Like a scene out of vintage James Bond. The place was packed with all sorts of large families (in both senses of the word). The waitress, clad in a Chinese silk blouse, asked "Y'all gunna have the buffet or dja need to see a menu?" She led us past the long display of food to tantalize us. We were starving. "Yes, please." The food was surprisingly good. There were free refills for the half-litre plastic cups of pop in front of every one in the place except us and the one other table of tourists, a Japanese family of four. After the kids had had their fill of the buffet and the seven varieties of jello, Wil went up to the cash to pay. He waited beside a woman who tried one credit card, then a second and finally ran out to the car to get a third to charge her $51 dinner. Our meal for five was a whopping $29.

After a great night's sleep in a motel we hit the free, hot breakfast buffet which, in a place like Carlsbad, New Mexico, can really get you down. Everyone looks so positively unhealthy, downing the bottomless coffee cups and plates piled ridiculously high with eggs, biscuits and gravy. I was happy to be lining ourselves up for some natural beauty.

Once we were off the highway, we had a lovely drive through the pale rolling hills, north faces dusted with snow. By midmorning we were at the Carlsbad Cavern visitor centre, which is perched on the threshold between hills and plain — the jagged Guadalupe Mountains in the distance. After paying our entry fee, we walked along a switchback trail, past the viewing area for watching the nightly exodus of the summer resident bats, into the gaping cavern mouth. The little light that reaches the cavern from outside soon fades and, along the concrete walkway, discreet little lights appear to illuminate some of the cavern's more dramatic rock formations. And there are so many! Stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, popcorn, draperies — crazy, mesmerizing organic shapes on the ceilings, floors and walls. Days later, I still can't quite get over the sheer vastness of the place. It took us 2-1/2 hours to follow just part of the path. In some places, the ceiling is more than a hundred feet above you. The main "room" of the cavern is an incredible 14 football fields and at one end lies the "Bottomless Pit", so named because the first explorers' lights weren't powerful enough to plumb the depths. The gigantic Iceberg Rock, which takes half an hour just to walk around, fell from the roof ages ago — its outline perfectly matching the contour of the ceiling above. We asked a park ranger about whether anyone had ever tried to hide here for the night. She told us that, according to park lore, long ago someone had, not realizing that the lights would be turned off for the 15-hour night. The rangers did the last rounds, switching off the lights as they went, when a panicked voice rang out from the dark. Another ranger told us about 16-year-old Jim White who first explored this place in the 20s. I can't think of a lot of 16-year-olds today daring enough to brave the profound darkness and quiet of this place. The park rangers are universally smiley, helpful and informative. They all seem so damned happy with their career choices and I can't blame them. Pointing out an alcove in the cavern wall, one ranger explained that where we stood we were only 80 feet from the outside and that, in the 1930's, a project was afoot to blast a tunnel in this side of the mountain to allow drivers to tour the cavern in their cars! When we were done the one-stop elevator took over a minute, at 9 mph, to take us back to the surface.

We drove on, through more rolling hills of brush, pale sand and rock, through the mountains and picturesque Lincoln Forest and back down into Alamogordo, a town full of military folk and nuclear testing facilities. Apparently a public burning of Harry Potter books took place here in 2002! When I tell Henri he is horrified. I consider hiding our Harry Potter DVD collection in case we get pulled over for speeding. The views of nature are breathtaking. The manmade stuff is a lot less inspiring — fenced-in front lawns littered with ancient vehicles (endless weekends of tinkering for some happy vintage car collector); the "Amber Skies Adult Community — the ultimate in manufactured home living", a compound of mobile homes circled by high stone walls and then the sprawling air force base, hundreds of identical ranch houses, also gated, followed closely by the nuclear facility. Hopefully Sunday isn't one of the two days a week this highway is closed down for missile testing.

Not long after, we arrived at White Sands National Monument, paid our entry fee and got on a road that snakes its way through the gypsum sand hills. At first, the vegetation and sand compete for pride of place but soon enough the sand takes over, creating phenomenal, crisp white dunes that carry your eyes all the way to the beautiful, craggy San Andres Mountains on one side, the Guadalupe chain looming on the other. The kids had a blast rolling and jumping down the dunes, playing house in the shady valleys. Some of the gypsum concealed a thick layer of snow from a recent storm. Wil and I basked in the 80 degree sun on the surprisingly cold "sand" as the kids ran off into the distance. Wil suggested that this place must have been the setting for some Native coming-of-age rituals — à la "take some peyote and get lost in the endless dunes."

We had a quick check-in with the border patrol (again, very pleasant) just north of infamous Juarez before heading north out of Las Cruces toward Truth or Consequences, the town with the unlikeliest name in the country. In an unbelievable bid at fame, the town volunteered to change its name to win the honour of hosting the game show's tenth anniversary program. Formerly known as Hot Springs (for its ample source of hot water bubbling out of the ground) , the town is a collection of one-story buildings on streets settled in to the bends of the Rio Grande. Wild West meets native meets Mexico, a kitschy string of neon signs advertising everything from restaurants to hotels to "Celestial Creations". We had dinner at Los Arcos, a restaurant with décor reminiscent of A Family Affair (I'm dating myself). When we mention this to the waiter and bemoan how little we remember from the show, aside from Jody and his sister and Mr. French, the butler, he lists all the show's characters and comes back later with a print-out of all the pertinent details. When we ask our waitress about the name of the town and whether it is resented by the populace she says that people seem pretty happy with the name and tells us about how, as a newcomer, she continues to be surprised that the town doesn't use the natural resource to heat the town's houses or hot water. The spring water comes out of the ground at a piping hot 112 degrees. We find a room at La Poloma spa, a 1920's motel with little wooden cabins set in a horseshoe shape around a gravel courtyard. On one end of the string of buildings is the bathhouse — a half-dozen rooms about fifteen by 6 with two massage type beds on either side and, at the far end, a set of concrete steps leading down into a 6 by 6 foot rock-bottom hot tub. Above the pool hangs a knotted rope which you use to hang on to experience weightlessness in the water. The water is sublime. What a way to end the day. What a way to start the day.

We head toward Acoma Pueblo, one of the oldest villages in North America, inhabited since the 12th century. Past the Casino and Dialysis centre, past a high school class of very fat kids doing laps around the high school track field. We drop down into the valley and stop at the visitor centre to get on the tour bus and pay our camera fee for taking pictures. We are met by Milford who tells us that sadly, due to the recession, tours of Sky City are only taking place on the weekend. We talk to him about just how determined the conquistadores must have been set on destruction to come find this peaceful community in the middle of nowhere. He tells us about the Spanish belief in the mythical seven cities of gold and that the golden sun setting on Ácoma Pueblo convinced the Spanish that this was one of them. We asked if he lived in the Pueblo. No, he said. I live up the road but my youngest sister has a house on the mesa (houses are handed down from mother to youngest daughter) and that only seven families live in the village. Elected by other members of the community (all from the ruling Antelope clan), men serve a year in the village with no electricity or running water with their families, keeping their ancestors' traditions alive. The valley was quiet, massive orange stone formations reaching into the sky.

Santa Fe feels like a theme park. All the new construction is required to look like ancient adobe structures which, rather than enhancing the integrity of the town's architecture, puts the ancient buildings in the same pile as the "adobe" WalMart and drive-ins. Henri asks why all the buildings are the colour of poo. I don't have a good answer. Although I applaud the effort to keep mobile homes and the school of diagonal-siding-design out of town, if ever there were a community where modernism could effectively be integrated it seems to me this would be the place. Not being in the market for a masseuse or turquoise jewellery, we opted to move on to Taos, hoping for a more authentic experience.

Favourite roadsigns of the day : Damaged Guardrail Ahead (oh shoot, i guess i better have my accident later!), Do Not Pick Up Hitchhikers - Detention Facility In Area, and the depressing Route 66 Casino Hotel - More Freedom! Hourly Child Care.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

throwing in the toalla

The bus ride to Puebla was interminable. Four movies before the lights went out. It was a bit surreal driving on these little, crappy roads through the dark, dark night. It provided some views that we usually miss out on, quick glimpses of families settled around dinner tables in their front yards, waitresses beckoning truck drivers with their menus on the side of the road. Despite the fact that the seats go waaaay back, I still found no way to be comfortable enough to sleep. Adding insult to injury, I was the ONLY person awake on the whole bus. I finally fell asleep after we got off in Villahermosa around 2am to refuel. It was a relief when the sun came up. It was a bit creepy revisiting the road to Puebla, and reliving our nightmare drive from Chiapas. No fog this time, just little puffs of cloud and a clear view of the mountainside and the snow-covered Pico de Orizaba. In the hills, cemeteries of pale blue and pink crosses set against the green mountain.

Back to Bronco Transmisiones to check on the van. We took it out for a test drive and all seemed okay. After having the van back at the hotel for the night, Wil felt the gears seemed to be working but the back wheel (the one that fell off) was making a weird rubbing noise and the brakes felt soft. Wil wanted to get it checked out before we left Puebla. The look on Miguel's face when we pulled in to the garage was priceless (these effin' Canadians who just won't leave!) It soon became clear that this was not going to be a quick fix. I'd been feeling crappy since the Yucatan. Miguel drove Wil and me to the pharmacy to see a doctor and check out my weird stomach ailment. With a free doctor on duty at the pharmacy, you know you're leaving with a prescription but what a service! I spent the day resting at the hotel as Wil and the kids whiled away the day at the garage, driving hither and yon with Miguel trying to find a new drum for the wheel. We decided to spend another night, to give me a chance to rest and to give the mechanics time to change what they needed to change.

We hit the road first thing in the morning -- so happy to finally be leaving Puebla. It was starting to feel like an episode of The Prisoner. It was so great to be back in the van, in our space with all our stuff. Heading west, hoping to do some camping in the countryside, aiming to see my folks near Guadalajara in a couple of days. We decided to first head for the Grutas Tolantongo, a place a guy at the garage told us about — a camping spot with caves and rivers, ziplines and most importantly, quiet. We drove through the desert, tumbleweeds two feet across filling the ditch, the occasional funnel cloud picking up all sorts of dust in the expanse, a crisp, blue sky overhead. We climbed up to 10,000 ft. Even sitting in the car we could feel how thin the air was — low grade headache, strange pressure in the sinuses, the sun's heat feels positively heavy. For a while, we followed a funeral on the side of the road — a Suburban carrying the coffin followed by forty people on foot holding flowers.

A couple of hours out of Puebla, the gears starting acting up. As we backed out of an Oxxo, the van did the now-familiar lurch in reverse when Wil engaged the clutch. Shit. Our very tenuous faith in the van started evaporating. A few minutes later as we climbed up a steep incline I watched Wil grimace as he struggled and failed to find third gear. Not long after, fifth gear crunched and popped out. We put the bungee cord back into service. The further we got from Puebla the higher the level of tension in the van climbed. The friction in the back wheel must have made the brake fluid boil again because the brakes just weren't right. We were approaching Tolantongo. After a forty-five minute drive away from the highway into nowhere, we started heading down into the valley. The pavement soon turned into dirt, the road turned into switchback. We could see the valley floor below us and saw a sign on the side of the road telling us the campsite was seven kilometres away. We SO wanted to spend a night in the country. Could we take the chance that we wouldn't have the gears to get us out of the valley if we made it down? We SO wanted to pretend all was well but it wasn't. We pulled over and had a family meeting. We broke it to the kids that our Mexican roadtrip is over. We turned around (mercifully Wil waited 'til later to tell me the brakes were giving way as we backed up to turn around with a five thousand foot drop behind us) and started heading for Austin. Keep your fingers crossed that the gears we have will hold until we get to the border.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

leaving the yucatan

One last lovely evening in Paa Mul with Mike and Véro. The girls, Alice, Frances and Soline were joined by Natalia and Gloria and they worked hard on a choreography all afternoon and then on the posters advertising their show. After dinner, the parents of the other girls appeared at the palapa for the performance, a surprisingly good interpretation of Tonight's going to be a good night. My crazy hay fever allergies from last year have kicked in again, making life without medication unbearable. Aargh!

In the morning, we pulled off one last homework session as we waited for our amazing hosts to wake up then we collected our stuff and jumped into Mike and Véro's car for the drive down the coast to Tulum. We all hung out together for lunch and a perfect afternoon on the beach. It was really sad to say goodbye. Hopefully, they're in Honduras having a great time by now.

Tulum is simply spectacular. White sand, pale turquoise waters, the kind of gentle swells anyone would feel confident wading into. There are no high rises here, only an endless string of pretty, thatched palapas — some rustic, some regal — all seriously expensive. Our tackily named hotel, OM, offers us a lovely room filled with windows on the second floor of a palapa with our own little balcony overlooking the sea. We shopped around a little before finding it. The bad news from the border makes hotelkeepers very keen to please, dropping prices at the hint of a second or third night. The town of Tulum is miles away, as is any sense that this place belongs in Mexico. But it is paradise. The hotels are so comfortable, on and off the beach, as to make any kind of movement out of the zone practically unthinkable. Each resort (most of them called things like "Boutique" and "Eco-Chic") has its collection of chaise longues or upholstered mattresses set up in a string of shade and a team of waiters ready to bring you a margarita or a Pacifico at the smallest signal. The crowd is young, international and wealthy (except for the family of hippies which we find sleepinig on a pile of blankets beside some overturned boats each morning — right before their session of naked yoga!). The other entertainment is watching the kitesurfers performing crazy aerial acrobatics as they rip along in the waves.

A few hours after saying goodbye to Mike and Véro, we head up the beach to see if Nicky and Gus have arrived. Two very urban looking figures dressed in black emerge from the shoreline. The kids run over for hugs and kisses. We settle into a groove of mellow hanging out at each others' hotels, cocktails and reading in the shade. Nicky finds an old school friend at her hotel, Lucy and her husband Eazy. Our first evening together is all about tequila, followed by a night of cold sweats & painful stomach spasms. It seems Reactine and alcohol do not mix. As I spend my days recovering from my crappy nights, Gus puts the kids through their paces in Beach Olympics or lovely Lucy invents game after game to entertain the girls. We decide to head back to Puerto Morelos for a day of fishing and snorkelling before moving on to Mérida to show Gus some Mexican city life before we part ways.

On our way to the Tulum bus station our cab driver, a sweet Mayan man, takes one look at the long line of cabs waiting for a fare and proposes a very reasonably priced cab ride all the way to Puerto Morelos. On our way, he chats to us about the changes he's seen in Tulum in the last twenty years. I ask him about why we saw no Mexican families on the beach yesterday, even though it was a Sunday."If they're not guests at one of hotels they're not allowed on the beach. There are a couple of other beaches further south where you'll find Mexican families." We make a note for the unlikely event that we ever come back. Wil and I felt relieved to be back in Puerto Morelos which has gained in authenticity after a few days in pricey Tulum. It's all relative. Some Mexican life is better than no Mexican life. We find ourselves a couple of rooms at the Hotel Inglaterra and head up the beach for a stroll. We aim for the pier at two to buy ourselves a fish to bring to La Playita, a restaurant up the beach that charges a nominal fee per kilo to cook your fish and bring it to your table with rice, salad and tortillas, but it turns out the Fisheries has decided that the fishermen are not allowed to fish today. We go to La Playita anyway, figuring that if there is fresh fish to be found it will be here. We are welcomed with open arms and a big silver-toothed smile. We pick through the cooler and find a massive, shiny-eyed grouper that is more than big enough for all of us and polish it off with some yummy guacamole and pico de gallo.

Later on we walk up the beach looking for Paco to make a snorkelling date for the next day. We find him near the one and only place on the Puerto Morelos beach with shade — a serious lack which some enterprising person could make a fortune addressing. We chat to him about what we'd like. He goes off and comes back with the captain, Carmen ("El Papá - La Leyenda" says his t-shirt) and his son and first mate, Angel. We make a date at seven the next morning at the pier.

We pile into the lancha, which thankfully has some shade. The sea is bumpy. Once we get beyond the reef, the swells open up and the real rocking begins. It wasn't long before Henri and I were keeping a close eye on the horizon. I always liked wind turbines but the fact that the one near Puerto Morelos is visible above the swells makes me even more partial to it. Carmen gets Angel to throw in the anchor and then hacks up a handful of sardines, cutting some up especially fine and throwing them into the water to attract the fish. I am sneaking quick backward glimpses at what Carmen is doing, not wanting to unsettle my stomach any more than I have to. Henri asks, in a desperate bid to calm his lurching insides, about getting into the water for a swim, "No,' Carmen says, 'there are sharks now." He pulls out some heavy round reels, baits the hooks and hands them out. Wil pulls up a snapper, Steve pulls up another fish, Angus a third. The rocking is unbearable. I apologize to Carmen about having to cut the fishing portion of our outing short as Henri's Special K goes overboard. The wind turbine is my new best friend.

We head back to the reef for some snorkelling. Angel hands out the equipment and jumps in the water with us. We see tiny electric blue fish, triggerfish, a massive grouper, a two-foot long pencil-shaped fish with the face of a seahorse, clouds of yellow fish coasting in the tide, "Traffic" Alice comments. The highlight for me was swimming above a huge sea turtle booting it along the sea floor. When we got back to the pier Carmen filleted the fish, cut it up into bite-sized pieces and turned it into the freshest, yummiest ceviche.

We left the next morning, first taking a coléctivo to the colonia and another into Cancún to catch the bus. On the bus, the boring landscape of the Yucatán flashes past. Empty, flat as a pancake and low scrub. A couple of movies later we pulled in to lovely Mérida — a colonial charmer with a relaxed caribbean feel. So many of the buildings are crumbling pastel beauties and derelict shells. Either the town is going through some tough financial times or the downtown is suffering the same plight as many American city centres. We walk through the colourful market — shrimp galore, chickens on hooks, chests opened up to reveal a hanging string of yolks waiting for shells; a skinny man in an oversized, cream sombrero sharpening knives on a large stone that he turns with his sandaled foot.

We have dinner at Alberto's Continental Patio, a gem of a place, originally a colonial home that has been a restaurant for over 50 years. We walk through a dark portico with incredible tile floors into a lovely, shady patio. The place is littered with antiques, dozens of tables ready to receive clients that never appear. Rusty, ornate bits of metal hang around the fountain in the centre of the patio, wooden saints people the walls. When we finish our yummy Lebanese meal Alberto rises from his desk in the back to greet us as his sister sneaks peeks at us through an ornate screen shielding the kitchen from the patio. If I were planning a wedding, this place would get my vote. He kindly gives us a tour of the building, turning the lights on and off as we enter and leave the grand rooms. More empty tables laid, deep shelves in the back rooms chockablock with treasures. "I'm selling it off slowly', he said. 'Everything has an end." His sentences in perfect English are punctuated by the chesty cough of a lifelong smoker.

The next morning we walk Nicky and Gus to the bus station and say a sad goodbye. Our time together flew by. We wander around the other side of town looking for a toy store to replace the girls' Barbies which stayed behind in Paa Mul. We finally find one and, as the girls are choosing, I sit outside watching the world go by. I see a couple in their sixties dressed to the nines, man in white pants and shoes, red shirt and fedora, the woman in a red satin dress and four-inch crimson heels. I wonder where they're headed on this sleepy Sunday. We head back to the hotel to collect our stuff and head to the zocalo to kill some time before our departure. We are drawn to a little park near the hotel by the sound of live music. There are stands set up, tables and chairs full of people facing a concrete platform a couple of feet off the ground. A band decked out in red and white is playing salsa as fifty plus couples crowd the platform and dance to their heart's content. Around the platform are plaques commemorating over 40 years of Sunday music. On the edge of the platform, strutting their stuff, is the couple from the street.

At five-thirty, we get on a bus headed for Puebla. A seventeen hour marathon back to find the van.